“Give me my robes, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me.”
The quote above is from Shakespeare’s play, Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra utters these lines just a few moments before she places a poisonous snake to her breast, which then bites her, releases its venom into her body, and kills her. Most of us, I suspect, would be in agreement with her sentiment; when thoughts of death occupy our minds, most of us long for immortality, too.
Our usual solution to the “problem” of death is to simply not think about it; if, perchance, we are for some reason forced to think about that bitter hug of mortality, it’s done only with a begrudging reluctance. Such denial is quite common, really. Perhaps even necessary. If we were to think of death in proportion to its effects on our lives, death would be on our minds constantly and we would be utterly paralyzed, unable to even get out of bed. It is functionally adaptive to be able to avoid thinking about our own mortality at every moment. Even that clear-eyed rationalist, Friedrich Nietzsche allowed that we need the occasional “comforting illusions.” He said that without them, we would die of the truth.
Let me give you an example of how this self-delusion works, and it is nowhere better described than by Tolstoy in his novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich:
In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it.
The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter's Logic: "Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal," had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius – man in the abstract – was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others.
“He simply did not and could not grasp it.” Death is, perhaps, the only human experience that can’t be learned. We go through life learning how to live from the experiences of others: how to behave in social situations, how to change a tire on a car, how to love, how to play a game, and on and on, ad infinitum. We are told, often in great detail, what these activities consist of, why they matter, and, perhaps most importantly, we get to experiment with these activities under the tutelage of a parent, mentor, or coach and become so intimately familiar with them that we develop a sense of expertise, a “feeling” of doing it rightly, a sense of competence. All of which is terribly reassuring and lends to one concluding that life is knowable, reasonably predictable, and if one follow the rules as articulated, relatively safe, too. One feels competent and efficacious; one feels one is in control of one’s own life. And if you place those feelings of certainty and efficaciousness alongside self-righteousness, you will have identified the holy trinity of human feeling. We love believing that we know things, how they work, their contingencies, their limits. We also love believing that we know how life works, how we, ourselves work, because if one can know that, then one can perfectly order and structure one’s life to receive the maximum satisfaction from it. We literally bet our lives on it, and we don’t much like the idea that we simply do not, and cannot, grasp the idea of life.
At the cutting edge of neuroscience, we are wrestling with startling conclusions: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality (see, for instance, Amanda Gefter, The Case Against Reality, The Atlantic, September 25, 2016). What we call reality and “the things out there,” are more properly understood as icons on a computer desktop. These icons have a particular color, a shape, and a location on the desktop. And when you click on them you expect a particular thing to happen that does, in fact, usually happen. These icons can differ from computer to computer, or even from user to user depending upon how you arrange them. But those qualities or categories of shape, color, and location I just mentioned are not the truth about the file of which the icon is a representation, and there is nothing physically inside my computer that looks like that icon. One couldn’t reconstruct a computer if one’s only view of its reality was limited to the desktop, and yet we think we can understand life and death through the equivalent act of clicking on the icon of a child, a spouse, a job, or even a casket or a pair of angel’s wings, thinking that the icon itself is reality.
And yet we insist upon living, and thinking about our living, in just this way. We tell ourselves that life is exactly what it appears to be. Especially when it comes to dying. Dying appears to be the end of me; dying appears to be final; dying appears to be separation. Now, when I say dying appears to be these things, I’m not implying that dying is the opposite of these things, either. I’m completely clear that I don’t know what, if anything, happens after we die. C.G. Jung has said that what happens after we die “...is simply a psychic activity that transcends the limits of consciousness…[death] means, psychologically, ‘beyond consciousness.’ There is positively nothing else it could mean since statements about immortality can only be made by the living, who, as such, are not exactly in a position to pontificate about conditions ‘beyond the grave’” (CW vol. 7, 191). And yet, because death conveys the possibility that one is to be annihilated, done for, torn away and irrevocably separated from everything and everyone one has hitherto loved, one may well long for immortality. And one may make any bargain to attain it. But, is it not perhaps so, that as long as one lives in fear of death, one is already dead? The fear of death pushes living out of one’s grasp.
Death is the inevitable and even necessary end to life, and as such, it is an important life task we mustn’t try to avoid. Learning how to die will, in fact, teach us how to live. If we refuse to learn how to die, the fear of death makes one into a slave, bonded to anything or anyone that arouses existential anxiety. The fear of death prevents us from living authentically as ourselves, it prevents us from thinking as we choose to think, and instead fashions our lives around the proclamations and directives of those who “know better” than ourselves. The fear of death makes us beholden to whatever person, activity, or belief professes to prolong life for us or even save us from death itself.
The problem, as I see it, is that death is not recognized for what it is, as one of the most important aspects of life (in fact, both Freud and Jung speak of death as the goal of life), and the avoidance of death insures that we will fail to fully live. Freud points out, “...at bottom, no one believes in his own death, which amounts to saying: in the unconscious, every one of us is convinced of his immortality” (Reflections on War and Death). And if we don’t believe in our deaths, we will have great difficulty believing in our lives as well. Life becomes empty, mean, and frankly boring, when we refuse to countenance any risk at all to our survival. Jung writes, "Death is psychologically just as important as birth and, [as such], is an integral part of life...If viewed correctly in the psychological sense, death, indeed, is not an end but a goal, and therefore life for death begins as soon as the meridian [mid-life] is passed" (The Secret of the Golden Flower).
A complete life, a full life, would then involve living for life in the first half of life--achieving, mastering, building careers, raising families, and so on, while the second half of life (after the meridian, as Jung puts it) is lived for death--the cultivation of beauty or aesthetics, developing a sense that one's life has meaning, that it has a necessary order, doing those things with one's life that must be done so that at the moment of death, on may be satisfied with the way one has lived. In ancient Greece there was an ideal known as the Kalos Thanatos, the beautiful death, and a beautiful death begins to take shape long before one's actual death by living each moment of one's life as fully and richly as possible, as though one had no other choice. Plutarch recalls the Great Pompey saying to his men as a terrible storm arose upon the sea on which they were about to set sail, “To sail is necessary, to live is not.” Eventually one finds that there are many things in life more important than death.
Before I close allow me to return for a moment to Cleopatra's poignant words, "I have immortal longings in me." Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, leaves the meaning of this utterance indistinct. One may read her as longing for immortality, expressing a wish to avoid death, but one might also read something else in this statement; one might conclude that it is longing itself that is immortal. Immortal longing. Here, I make a distinction between longing and desire. Desire may often be fulfilled, but longing can never be entirely satisfied; even when one achieves cherished, long held goals, what often remains is a nagging sense of incompleteness or gnawing emptiness, as though one expected to feel something more, something definitive and final. It is a function, I believe, of our human, all too human constitution to long for that which cannot be realized, for that which cannot be grasped. I think that the unquenchable longing is really the longing for an aesthetic experience, the longing for an experience of transcendent and pervasive beauty.
I think that the apprehension of beauty is the product of an alchemy of impermanence--our own on the one hand and on the other, the rarity, the strangeness, the fragility of the observed. Those qualities in ourselves bind to the same qualities in the regarded beauty and for a moment, we are transported out of ourselves. We understand that the beautiful is also ephemeral, that the experience of beauty is momentary, it doesn’t last, that beauty is fugitive and hard to grasp. Those qualities don’t diminish the experience of beauty, they define it. The 14th century Zen poet, Yoshida Kenko, wrote: "If we lived forever, never to vanish like the dews of Adashino, never to fade like the crematory smoke on Toribeyama, men would scarcely feel the beauty of things" (my translation).
So if it is, in fact, our longing that is immortal, one may experience immortality in a transient moment of aesthetic rapture. This is the experience William Blake described when he wrote, "To see the a world in a grain of sand/ And heaven in a wildflower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour" (The Songs of Innocence). The longing for deep beauty, whose very nature is ephemeral and transient, places one in harmony with death in a profoundly powerful manner, allowing one to realize that death itself makes life beautiful, and what's more, it is death that makes life bearable. And finally, as Sigmund Freud archly noted, "To bear life remains, after all, the first duty of the living" (Reflections on War and Death).